Cloistered women seek cash

July 17, 1998

INDIA's University Grants Commission is backing a plea for full state financial support from a unique women's educational institute in isolated Rajasthan, where a 60-year-old policy of cloistered female education is still seen as necessary to fight India's male-dominated society.

Banasthali Vidyapith was founded for high-school girls to counter the Rajasthani tradition of early marriage and enforced seclusion of girls as young as 13, but the age range now extends from nursery to PhD. The policy is showing signs of strain, with many of its graduates said to be unable to deal with men in the workplace and society generally.

The UGC made its recommendation in early March but central government ratification may take several months. UGC chair Armaity Desai says she cannot comment until central government has confirmed the recommendation. But she says that Banasthali is crucial as the only university of its kind in northern India.

The first degree course was taught in 1943 under the supervision of Rajasthan University. In 1983 Banasthali was granted independence with "deemed university status" for India's non-statutory organisations.

Banasthali's roots lie in a Ghandian, Hindu nationalist homespun ethos and a recent overview described its mission as "sacred". Students and staff privately challenge the prevailing policies, but as there is no forum for debate on campus, and no unions for staff or students, there is little scope for dissent.

But it is popular with parents, and oversubscription means there is little pressure for change unless the UGC intervenes.

Rajasthan state has provided 50 per cent funding for a number of years and the UGC a further 25 per cent. The difference has so far been met from fees and other non-state sources, but there is a growing deficit, along with concern that the independence of the university and its associated schools would be eroded with more state funding.

Professor Desai has not visited the campus, but she said the UGC recognises the need for a residential women-only university in the north.

The prospectus, published in Hindi, lays down rules that would be unenforceable in any western university, or in any of India's metropolitan institutions.

Students must wear khadi, the state-subsidised Ghandian cottage industry cloth, and in traditional styles appropriate to their age. Teaching is in Hindi, and statues of Ghandi and Nehru occupy prominent positions on campus.

The diet is vegetarian and the religion Hindu, with prayers on the public address system at 5.30am every day. Students' incoming mail is monitored, and even withheld for forwarding to parents if considered inappropriate - only married students are exempt. Outgoing mail must be handed to a warden for examination.

Jaipur, the nearest city, is two to three hours away. Visits there or anywhere off campus are forbidden except with written parental consent, with a guard on the gate to check passes. Students can, and do, evade these rules, but if caught, "expulsion" is not the word used, students are deemed not to wish to continue there and are given a "transfer certificate".

Parents pay fees of about 20,000 rupees (Pounds 290) a year, equivalent to three months' salary for a higher grade schoolteacher or lecturer.

Diwakar Shastri, son of the founder Hiralal Shastri and currently secretary, said that Banasthali faced some difficult decisions. It would have to increase fees or raise substantial investments from industry for bursaries or scholarships.

The institution is still officially dedicated to the memory of Shantabai, daughter of the founder, a prominent but socially concerned Rajasthani administrator, who had high hopes that Shantabai would lead and continue the work. She died in her teens while building her first village schoolroom. The founder's widow is president.

It is difficult to judge quality - in India universities set their standards by obtaining letters of recognition from other institutions that confirm that their degrees are equivalent.

Most Banasthali degree courses were set up decades ago and, with the exception of the computer department, the lecture rooms and laboratories have a dated and primitive appearance.

The library has an extensive if dusty collection with a number of western periodicals but no photocopier or computers for library use by the 1,200 university students, out of a total enrolment of 2,800.

A quarter of the students come from the neighbouring state of Bihar, which is a dangerous place for women, and the students say their families consider the remote campus a safe haven. One important feature is seclusion from young unmarried males. Village boys and sons of staff members are allowed in class only until the age of ten.

Nevertheless the atmosphere is relaxed and studious, and students who want to break the rules have found ways of doing this - writing to boys, receiving letters from them under pseudonyms and arranging meetings off campus.

The computer department is well- equipped, but students have to queue for access. However there is a problem with communications with the outside world - Internet connection is dependent on a poor-quality telephone link with Delhi.

There is no web access, but a satellite link and a campus fibre-optic network are planned for later this year. There are only two telephone booths for staff and students - a source of serious irritation for the single women tutors, who live in a hostel.

Students are assertive, informed and self-assured on campus but there is no politicisation. Aditya Shastri, the Harvard-educated head of computer science and a grandson of the founder, says that all the students on his hugely popular MCA course are effectively guaranteed jobs before completing their studies.

Banasthali's most remarkable feature is the extremely high standard of performance from students on the classical music and dance courses who put on an annual performance at the two-day convocation and degree ceremony for fellow students, staff and visitors.

Visitors this year included a leading woman freedom fighter from India's war of independence from Britain, and the country's foremost businesswoman - the former chairman and managing director of the Export Import Bank of India - who told cheering students to think of themselves as individuals and question the traditional sacrificial and dutiful role expected of Indian womenfolk.

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